Coming off a 2018 collaboration album with the orchestral collective s t a r g a z e, which was nothing much more than an exercise in chamber and avant-garde sounds, Minnesota-based art pop band Poliça is back with When We Stay Alive. The album steers away from the band’s typically dynamic, drum n’ bass-infused production and instead goes for a more subdued, synth and bass-heavy approach. Vocals from Channy Leaneagh follow suit, as she uses a soft and smoky delivery across the record.
While the sonic attributes of the album are relatively suppressed, incredible power is demonstrated through gut-punching lyrics. Coming off a debilitating injury after falling and damaging her spine, Leaneagh goes on to present her meditative recovery — not only of her body, but her mind. From portrayals of internal struggle on “Feel Life,” with lines on the chorus crying, “To feel I’ve failed and I felt it, in the throbbing pain and the paralyzed lips, screaming at death, ‘Why won’t you stick?’” to more reflective moments, such as on “Tata,” in which she tells herself, “Don’t you hold on to that hurt so long, or do, or don’t, doctors can’t cure,” Channy makes her story a compelling one. Her process of mental recovery also spans beyond the injury, as shown on the climax of the album in “Forget Me Now.” On this track, she spills her emotions soulfully over a climactic, powerful instrumental that I could vividly imagine Sampha singing on, opening up about her struggles with a significant other with lines like, “What about me makes you lie? Right to my face, I’m laying alone in your disgrace.”
While Leaneagh gives us very emotionally gripping and evocative performances across most of the run time, the album’s (few) notable faults lie in the production. The transition from the aforementioned energetic and dynamic instrumentals of their past work to this more restricted sound shows some growing pains, as they come across as flat and lacking coordination with the vocals at points. Though this is not done too often and tracks like “Driving,” “Steady,” and “Forget Me Now” lay out stellar foundations for Channy to work her magic, the lack of consistency ultimately holds the album back from reaching its true potential. This is exemplified on tracks like “Feel Life,” where the mix of the loud and repetitive drums takes away from the power of the vocals and ultimately makes the track rather boring and forgettable, as well as the following track, “Little Threads,” where the instrumental progresses into nothingness and again lacks any sonic qualities that would make it memorable. Overall the music is pretty, alluring, and lyrically interesting, but ends up reliant on Channy and her cutting narratives of mental healing to keep the album engaging the whole way. Ultimately, the album does have its drawbacks, but is a good listen with many great high points.
Recommended If You Like: Austra, Bat for Lashes
Recommended Tracks: 1 (Driving), 2 (Tata), 7 (Steady), 8 (Forget Me Now)
Do Not Play: None
Written by Fernando Claudio-Lopez on 02/17/2020